Russia’s ‘cauldron’ tactic may be tipping Donbas battle in its favour – The Guardian

Wealthlandnews
Wealthlandnews May 28, 2022
Updated 2022/05/28 at 7:25 PM

Analysis: smaller encirclements that are pounded with artillery are forcing exhausted Ukrainian forces to yield
After several weeks of deadlock, Russia’s military appears to have found a way to advance in the Donbas – pounding it with such intense, unsophisticated artillery that Ukraine’s exhausted defenders are having to yield.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy rarely gives casualty figures but Ukraine’s president said last Sunday that “50 to 100 Ukrainian troops die on Donbas frontlines each day”, meaning perhaps 3,000 a month in the grisly war of attrition.
Wounded will typically be three or perhaps four times as much, a serious loss for a Donbas defence force estimated at 30,000 before the war began, although the numbers increased following Ukraine’s mass mobilisation.
“Russian forces have secured more terrain in the past week than efforts earlier in May,” reported the Institute for the Study of War on Tuesday, in particular approaching the frontline city of Sievierodonetsk and in villages nearby.
“The shelling of Sievierodonetsk is growing exponentially,” said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, which is now 95% controlled by the Russians. He estimated 10,000 Russian troops and an extra 2,500 pieces of equipment had been committed to the attack.
The Russian advances are not dramatic but they reflect a new strategy. Gone for now are the attempts at wider encirclements of Ukrainian forces in the Donbas, which included a failed river crossing in early May. Instead units are focused on smaller encirclements – or “cauldrons” – and a sheer concentration at Sievierodonetsk.
That was confirmed by the militia head of the self-proclaimed pro-Russian republic in Donetsk, Eduard Basurin, who said Russian forces had adopted an approach of creating smaller encirclements to deprive Ukrainian troops of logistics and reinforcements, rather than pursuing a single large one.
Russian efforts in the Donbas have also been aided by shorter supply lines over the border into Russia as well as a dense network of railway lines in the parts of Luhansk occupied by pro-Russian forces since 2014. And forces previously thrown into the failed attempt to take Kyiv continue to arrive.
It follows the appointment by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, of Gen Aleksandr Dvornikov to lead the fight. Infamous as the “Butcher of Syria” he also commanded a motor rifle division that devastated Grozny in the late 1990s. Dvornikov has brought the same tactics to Ukraine.
Nick Reynolds, a land warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute thinktank, said the Russians had engaged in “progressive reorientation of their operations towards increasingly modest objectives” allowing them to take villages such as Popasna and Rubizhne, although he argued “their ground forces are still performing badly” as demonstrated by the reliance on artillery.
Others are not so sure. An anxious Kyiv continues to plead with the west for more powerful weapons. The latest demand is for M270 long-range multiple rocket launchers. On Friday, after a to and fro lasting several weeks, it appears the US now appears to be willing to provide some, after previously refusing.
The M270 comes in many versions but it can use missiles with a range of over 100 miles (165km), while the British version has a limit of 52 miles. Both are well beyond anything Ukraine has and would be a significant addition to Kyiv’s arsenal at a time when the country continues to have a pressing requirement for western arms.
When asked what Ukraine needed at present, Kira Rudik, a Ukrainian MP visiting the UK, said “the first and the foremost is weapons always”, arguing her country and the west “should not underestimate Russia right now” just because Moscow’s forces had, until earlier this week at least, made limited progress in the Donbas.
Rudik said she spoke to Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline every day. But an ongoing problem, she acknowledged, was that it can take two months or more for promised western weaponry to arrive, another reason why Russia may be enjoying a tactical advantage.
Ukraine’s fundamental problem is that while it may have fought off the attacks on Kyiv and Kharkiv in the first phase of the three month-long war, it has not been able to reverse Russia’s territorial gains in the south and east.
That means it has incurred human and economic losses far greater than Russia. Nearly 13 million people have been displaced by the fighting, the UN estimates. Its economy is set to fall 45% this year, according to the World Bank, and the country cannot balance its books. Its strategic exports of grain – 99% of which used to travel by ports blockaded or held by Russia – lie in silos where 22m tonnes are at risk of rotting.
Meanwhile, it may have taken three months for Russia to take the port of Mariupol, ruining and depopulating the city in the process, but this week minesweepers were clearing the beaches and the port, which Moscow hopes to reopen to create a fresh supply line from Russia to the occupied south.
A threat for Ukraine remains western fatigue, or a loss of unity, particularly if a largely stalemated war drags on towards next year. Countries traditionally less hostile to Russia may follow the suggestion of the veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger at the Davos summit this week, to consider pressing Ukraine to agree to a partition.
There are signs Russia is happy with the current pace. The defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, claimed on Tuesday the offensive was being slowed “deliberately in order to avoid civilian casualties” – and while there is plenty of evidence to the contrary about harm to ordinary Ukrainians from Russian shelling, it also suggests a country being prepared for a longer war.
Phil Osborn, a former head of UK defence intelligence, said the military situation was such that Ukraine needed as much help as it could get.
“The west must focus unremittingly on Ukraine and be prepared for pain. Putin calculates that we will be increasingly distracted (just look at the news cycle moving on and the ‘reasonable’ voices nudging Zelenskiy to settle) and that he has more patience than the west.”

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